In 1972, ABC aired a “Movie of the Week” about a newspaper reporter who could best be described now as the Woodward and Bernstein of the supernatural set, and in doing so, ABC gave birth to one of fiction’s most memorable characters: Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker. The movie was based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice called “The Kolchak Papers” – which in manuscript form bounced around Hollywood for a time – but when legendary writer Richard Matheson was put on the job as screenwriter, and Dan “Dark Shadows” Curtis was brought on to produce, the result was a “perfect storm” of talent that was topped off with the casting of Darren McGavin as investigative journalist Carl Kolchak. This made-for-TV movie was not only an amazing mash-up, but it also garnered the highest ratings of any TV movie at that time. Now, almost five decades have passed since it’s original airing, and The Night Stalker is still as fresh and pertinent as it was back in the 70s; so let us journey back and re-visit a seminal moment in television history.
The movie opens with a weary Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) listening to a replay of his dictated notes about a series of murders that took place in Las Vegas, a story he covered but which was subsequently quashed by the authorities. This narrative device would carry on throughout this movie and would become the signature element of the sequel and the series it spawned. The character of Kolchak is a perfect avatar for an audience that is entering the world of the supernatural for the first time; he is a world weary cynic, having been fired from ten papers across the country due to his unbridled desire for the truth, and he certainly doesn’t believe in ghosts and ghoulies or things that go bump in the night. When Kolchak is first assigned the case of a murdered girl at the Gold Dust Saloon, by his ever beleaguered editor Anthony “Tony” Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), he is not happy about the assignment, referring to it as, “A two-day old, third-rate murder,” but when the body count continues to climb, he becomes very interested, as a serial killer story could be his ticket back to the big leagues of journalism.
The Night Stalker came about in a period of time when the public was starting to lose its trust in people of authority; the Vietnam War was dragging endlessly on, and Nixon’s Watergate scandal was just around the corner, thus having a Don Quixote-like reporter pushing at the “windmills” of government would have certainly struck a nerve in audiences of 1972. Much of this movie’s short 75 minute running time deals with Kolchak butting heads with authority, in the form of Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins), Police Chief Masterson (Charles McGraw) and District Attorney Paine (Kent Smith), who block every attempt Kolchak makes in publishing reports of a man murdering young women and draining them of blood. Now at first, Kolchak is a firm believer that “This nut thinks he’s a vampire!” but even the idea of a crazed serial killer is bad for tourism, so his stories are repeatedly suppressed. That the governmental authorities held such power over the press is almost as chilling as the idea of a vampire running around Las Vegas, but even more chilling when you consider the fact that vampires aren’t real and corrupt governments are very real, and far more dangerous.
What makes Carl Kolchak such a compelling character is that though he comes across as a rather abrasive and jaded cynic, with fortune and glory being a central part of his motives, and as the mystery unravels he is close-minded to the idea of the supernatural. It gets interesting when his girlfriend Gail Foster (Carol Lynley) suggests to Carl that they could be dealing with an actual vampire, and not just a nut, and after some urging he actually does read up on vampire mythology. Then, when he sees for himself the killer tossing police officers around, and shrugging of a hail of gunfire as if it was nothing, he’s not too stubborn to admit that this could be an actual living breathing vampire. Of course, this realization doesn’t help his case with those in authority – they already considered Kolchak a loose cannon that needs to be stifled – but when he points out that almost every cop on the scene had emptied their guns on the killer, they have one of two choices, “Either he was shot, or your entire police department is blind.”
Let us now take a look at the film’s title character, the “night stalker,” terrorizing the young women of Las Vegas. Though the film tries to dance around the mystery of whether this is a nut or an actual vampire, anyone who saw the many television promos previous to the movie’s airing went into a viewing of The Night Stalker knowing full-well that we were dealing with the real thing. Kolchak’s good friend and FBI agent Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker) reveals that they have identified the suspect, as to be one Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), a man who has been the prime suspect in multiple homicides involving massive losses of blood extending back years and across several countries. Skorzeny would have to be in his seventies by this time, and this lends credence to Kolchak’s claims that they are dealing with an actual vampire, as it was no elderly European tossing Las Vegas’s finest around. The type of vampire Barry Atwater portrays in this movie is one that is animalistic in nature, he utters not one word of dialogue, and mostly hisses for the camera, but he is quite terrifying in his ferocity and hunger. His portrayal of Janos Skorzeny is reminiscent of Christopher Lee’s performance in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and it is quite effective.
The Night Stalker was far from the first vampire movie to take place in a modern urban setting, even Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi was a contemporary retelling of the Bram Stoker novel, but with this film much of the focus wasn’t so much on the supernatural elements of the vampire story, but in how the police and the press tried to handle the situation. We follow Kolchak’s journey from skeptic to true believer as he seeks out informers and witnesses that can all add clues to the true horror and mystery that has thrown a shadow over Las Vegas, and it’s in seeing this wonderfully realized seersucker suit-wearing reporter, doggedly hunting down a vampire, despite the personal and professional risk that it entails, that makes him such a great character and this film so memorable. We should not fail to mention that the film was also admirably directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, a prolific and talented television director, and the fantastic cinematography of Michel Hugo balances elements of modern horror with the classic gothic look.
• Television censors at the time forced the writers to only allude to the fact that the first victim may have been a lesbian and that Kolchak’s girlfriend was a prostitute.
• The city coroner is played by Larry Linville, who a year later would play Major Frank Burns on M*A*S*H.
• Kolchak seems immune to police protocols as he just wanders in and out of crime scenes and none of the officers ever bat an eye at this.
• This film adds a terrifying original element to the vampire mythos; Kolchak discovers one of Skorzeny’s victims bound and alive in his cobwebbed lair, where she was apparently being used to warm the blood he had been stealing from local hospitals.
If The Night Stalker had been released theatrically – and given fifteen or so extra minutes to make it a proper feature length – it would have most likely met with fantastic box office numbers, but by theatrical or television standards this movie is a gem of the genre, and Darren McGavin’s portrayal of Carl Kolchak, which is simply priceless, would later inspire Chris Carter to create The X-Files. If you haven’t had a chance to see The Night Stalker, or its sequel and subsequent series, you need to do yourself a favor and track it down. To quote Carl Kolchak himself, “Judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here.”
The Night Stalker (1972
With the likes of writer Richard Matheson and Dark Shadows producer Dan Curtis on hand one could say The Night Stalker was bound to be a success, but with Darren McGavin’s input in the creation of Carl Kolchak this movie will live on for generations.